Sing by ear: A study of motivation, informal learning, and musicianship of popular music education in Hong Kong

Tsz Wai Pearly POON

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


Hong Kong students’ declining motivation levels in learning music have become an alarming issue and a challenge for music educators. At the same time, while expressing an interest in popular music, local students have limited opportunities to study the genre as part of their formal school curricula. It leaves the question of what kinds of teaching strategies and music materials should be constructed to provide students with educational and musical values in the school music curriculum. The present study explores the effects and responses of implementing popular music education in the local classroom, examines students’ motivational levels and, the psychology of music learning based on the self-determination theory.
A teaching approach was created based on the concepts from informal learning practices with the addition of singing elements, namely the Sing by Ear project. The approach is tailored to the Hong Kong classroom music context, as instruments and spacious practice rooms are not required when resources are limited. The project aims to provide a comprehensive music learning approach in which confidence, and satisfaction, and musicianship through listening, creating, and performing could be earned collaboratively and simultaneously with the activity. The current research was administered under the explanatory sequential approach, which involves two phases of data collection: a quantitative phase followed by a qualitative phase. By employing the convenience sampling method, 323 participants (aged 11- 14) were invited to the three-month project. Students were involved in singing cover songs by ear instead of reading music notations in an a cappella setting. A mobile learning strategy was adopted due to the enforcement of social distancing measures following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data were collected by pre-test and post-test survey instruments and student interviews to determine (1) the extent of self-determination for having formal school music lessons, (2) the motivational changes based on the self-determination theory (SDT) by implementing the Sing by Ear approach, (3) the difference in students’ motivation level by (a) gender, (b) grade level, (c) instrumental background, and (d) span of previous music training, and (4) the effect of informal learning practice and learning by ear approach of the Sing by Ear project on the learning process and musicianship in students. An understanding of how that influences their musical learning process and motivation level is provided based on SDT.
Results show that students has high level of Amotivation in formal music lessons, indicating that the students are neither motivated by internal nor external factors. Moreover, results show that students’ motivation levels in the Intrinsic motivation domains have higher increases than in the other domains after the Sing by Ear project, suggesting that students experience a quality intrinsic motivation that promotes psychological growth and internal regulation. With no significant relationships (p > .05) found between motivation levels and the factors of (a) gender, (c) grade level, (c) instrumental background, and (d) span of instrumental learning, the results also indicated that students, regardless of instrumental background, could experience higher motivation in learning music. In the qualitative interviews, students reported a gain in musicianship and confidence in making music through peer-directed informal learning.
The limitations of the study should be observed. The convenience sampling of participants and the number of participants may have restricted diversity in this study. Students from different schools or different regions may have demonstrated varying characteristics.
The findings serve as a reference for discussions in the Hong Kong secondary school music curriculum. From a new perspective, popular music education with elearning elements is introduced in the classroom setting. The possibility of introducing the informal learning style into formal school settings is also explored. In addition, the results obtained from Hong Kong may aspire to different pedagogical approaches in popular music education in a global context. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The Education University of Hong Kong
  • CHEN, Chi Wai 陳智偉, Supervisor
  • MATSUNOBU, Koji 松信浩二, Supervisor
  • LEUNG, Bo Wah 梁寶華, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Popular music education
  • Informal learning
  • Learn by ear
  • Self determination
  • Mobile learning
  • Thesis (Ph.D.)--The Education University of Hong Kong, 2022


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